What are the benefits of retinol and is it safe to use?

If you struggle with blemished or aging skin, or from a skin condition such as acne, chances are you've tried many natural remedies to help. These may have included apple cider vinegar, vitamin supplements, essential oils or even a viral honey and cinnamon mask you may have seen trending on social media.

But chances are, you've also turned to prescription and over-the-counter medications or topical applications in an attempt to find a solution. While there are many products offered by the $146-billion-dollar skin-care industry which include vitamin C serum and a host of lotions and creams, few such products or ingredients are more sought after than retinol.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a form of the fat-soluble nutrient vitamin A, and is a popular ingredient in skin cream topicals for its anti-aging effects. It's a type of retinoid - chemical compounds derived from vitamin A or chemically related to it - but is unique in that most retinoids are considered powerful enough to require a prescription while the retinol formula is mild enough to be available in over-the-counter form.

"Retinol is most commonly applied topically and only a small amount is needed," explains Dustin Portela, DO, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Treasure Valley Dermatology in Boise, Idaho. "To my patients, I recommend using a pea-size amount of cream or gel, or about four drops of the serum, to cover the whole face."

Though retinol is mainly used as a lotion, cream, gel or serum, retinol-related medications can be taken orally as well to treat skin conditions and to help "prevent skin cancers in patients at higher risk of skin malignancies," says Anna Chien, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Columbia, Maryland, and an associate professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

What does retinol do?

Retinol is effective in a number of ways. It can unclog pores (and thereby improve acne), neutralize free radicals and exfoliate one's skin. "Retinol acts inside your skin cells on several different molecular pathways to help improve the skin's appearance," explains Portela. In this way, he says it can help boost collagen production and also minimize wrinkles and fine lines.

Chien says that retinol can also improve skin turnover, decrease the size of sebaceous glands (glands found in hair follicles that secrete the oily substance sebum), even out pigmentation, decrease skin proliferation, improve skin texture and protect against signs of aging. Because of such varied functions, "it's used topically for acne, skin aging, discoloration and for certain skin diseases such as psoriasis," she says.

Is it safe to use retinol?

While many people reap such benefits without experiencing side effects, "retinol does come with some risks," says Portela. He says the most common one is irritation of the skin. "It can disrupt the moisture barrier if you use too much or too strong of a retinol for your skin type," he cautions.

Another area of concern is that it's possible for retinol to increase one's sensitivity to the sun. Because of this, "it is especially important to wear a daily sunscreen if you have incorporated retinol into your skin care routine," Portela advises. Retinol is also not generally recommended for use while pregnant.

When it comes to decreasing retinol's side effects related to skin irritation, Chien says that can "be managed with careful titration of its usage (combined with) a gentle skin care routine."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What does retinol do? Safety, benefits explained